X-treme: Kings of the half-pipe

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Sure you were pleased with that BMX you got for your 10th birthday... but you're not still riding it 15 years later. Are you? The trendiest sport on two wheels is in the hands of a bunch of big, very reckless kids

Like learning to walk, riding a bike is a "rites of passage" kind of achievement. After the ceremonial removal of the training wheels, you're on your way - the world (ie all streets near your house before the "no-go" traffic-laden main road) becomes your oyster.

Every self-respecting adult male has at least one small scar that's the result of a bicycle crash, but you'd have to own a very large collection of plaster casts indeed to eclipse Matt Hoffman's sobering medical history.

The numerous injuries this US rider (and prime innovator) has suffered over the years seem none too impressive when you consider he wears a helmet for a living. Having said that, how often does your job require you to pull a big-air 360-degree rotation, off a 11ft half-pipe... on a BMX bike?

Forget about mountain bikes, BMXs still represent the coolest things on two wheels. Different styles and variations have come and gone but BMX still has the ability, in the hands of individuals with little regard for personal safety, to casually astound.

"In the 1980s, BMX riding peaked, then crashed and disappeared," says Stuart Dawkins, the man behind BMX's famous "Backyard Jams" in the UK.

"We started the contests about six or seven years ago. It was just a small competition then, but it has got bigger each year. We always make a point to try to bring US riders over to attract rour own riders and spectators."

His "Seventies" company also manufactures and distributes BMX equipment around the UK. "A lot of the main BMX companies are run by the riders now [Matt Hoffman designs bikes for his own company "Hoffman Bikes"]. In the past that didn't happen very often; now we expect to witness a gradual growth."

As with most of the so-called, "adrenaline" activities, America is almost inevitably the place where the top performers can earn a living from their skills. Presently, there are some professional riders in the UK, but most were born, or at least reside, in the USA.

One of the main differences between BMX in the 1980s and its present revival is the sport's media image. In the past BMX was portrayed as little more than a pastime for teenagers (culminating in several memorable films, like BMX Bandits). As the Millennium approaches, BMX riding has earned a much-needed new style of presentation.

"BMX is on television a lot more than it used to be," says Stuart. "Channel 5, [US channel] ESPN and Sky Sports show quite a lot. The idea is to show it in a sensible way as opposed to its childish portrayal in UK shows like BMX Beat and the Kellogg's Championships."

With Gary Crowley safely out of the picture, BMX is often featured with other x-treme sports under the "X Games" banner in the UK.

There are four basic BMX disciplines; racing, flatland, dirt jumps and the half-pipe.

But have the bikes themselves evolved? A major design change has revolutionised the flatland (where riders perform a series of intricate, balancing manoeuvres on the ground) discipline since the early 1980s.

"Gyros" enable a rider to "endo" on the front wheel while spinning the back half of the bike as the brake cables run inside the tubing. It's an impressive sight but the most awesome discipline is still the half- pipe.

Top riders like Hoffman defy gravity (and common sense) to perform manoeuvres that make skateboarding look pedestrian.

What possesses these people to risk life and limb? "The thrill of it," Stuart concludes. "It's that feeling when you're pulling tricks; you're on the edge of danger."

THE LOW DOWN - BMX

YOUR BIKE

This can cost between pounds 80 for a very basic two wheels and handlebars machine to more than pounds 1,000 for a top of the line freestyle ("flatland") or racing machine. As with all bikes, the extra cost goes into extra features - like the "gyro" handlebars which allow you to "endo", and trick axle pegs - and higher quality materials. For pounds 280 you can buy a good-quality GT Performer machine which can get you started. Contact BMX specialist Edwards of Camberwell (0171-703 3676)

WHERE TO GO

Freestyle riding is a get-out-and-do-it sport, but there are about 50 BMX clubs affiliated to the British Cycling Federation (0161-230 2301). Ring them for details of a club near you.

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